I don't think that owners and managers of woodworking businesses lie awake at night thinking of ways to make their plants more dangerous for their employees. Yet, it is also apparent that some woodworking business owners and managers could do more to make their shops a safer work environment.

This is why I shake my head every time I see an OSHA press release in which a wood products firm has been cited for serious, repeat and/or willful safety and health violations. Are managers of these plants that callous or is OSHA simply overzealous?

Considering the long list of potential hazards in a typical woodworking operation -- machine guarding; wood dust as both respiratory and combustible dust issues, noise pollution, eye safety, VOC emissions from finishes and adhesives, etc. -- it's almost impossible not to imagine that on any given day, any wood operation could be cited by an OSHA inspector for one or more health and safety violations. And the preceding list doesn't even include administrative requirements such as maintaining Material Safety Data Sheets on file, developing a hazardous communications program and providing workers with regular safety training.

Callous or Picked on?
My head is still shaking after posting an OSHA press release about Northeastern Wisconsin Wood Products of Pound, Wi, which was recently cited for 18 alleged health and safety citations, including 13 willful violations, which OSHA defines as "one committed with intentional knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health."

The 13 willful violations cited against Northeastern Wisconsin Wood Products, including failure to provide workers with ear and eye protection;; lack of machine guards and guard rails; and accumulations of combustible dust;, carry penalties totaling $360,000 in proposed fines.

What makes this case particulary disconcerting is that OSHA had cited this firm for violations as early as 2006 and again in a follow-up inspection in 2007. In May 2010 the company was issued a secretary of labor petition for summary enforcement and granted 30 days to work with a Wisconsin state consultation service to abate the violations. According to OSHA, the consultation service fired the client "due to a lack of cooperation by the company."

When OSHA inspectors returned to the plant in January of this year, they identified the 18 violations, many of which OSHA noted were for the same safety and health issues it had originally written the company up for in 2006.

Incredible. Five years after being told where it was deficient in employee health and safety and many of the same problems continued to persist. 

Adding insult to injury, OSHA this time also cited the company for a repeat safety violation carrying a proposed penalty of $7,920 for failing to provide potable water for drinking, plus three serious violations for failing to periodically inspect energy control procedures, use group lockout devices and train employees in electrical safety.

I would hope that Northeastern Wood Product managers have answers to explain their apparent disregard or  inability to correct the deficiencies pointed out by OSHA inspectors.  

'Worst Case Scenario'
Northeastern Wood Products is hardly alone and as bad as it seems, another wood product company's predicament stands out in my mind as "the worst case scenario." 

You may recall reading Woodworking Network's report about Phenix Lumber of Phenix City, AL, which was fined $1.9 million by OSHA willful violations in June "for egregious and other safety violations, including exposing employees to amputation and fall hazards." OSHA said while investigating the report of an employee who lost a finger in Phenix Lumber's planer mill, it learned of a second employee who had lost part of his hand working in the mill.

In citing Phenix Lumber for 24 willful violating, OSHA noted that the company had been been cited 77 times by the safety agency for serious safety and health violations since 2007, including for machine guard and lock-out/tag-out problems that if corrected might have prevented the amputation injuries.

The $1.9 million in proposed penalties was lumped on top of $439,400 in OSHA fines that Phenix Lumber received for relative to a fatal forklift injury and the case of a worker who was critically injured in a debarker machine accident.

Phenix Lumber issued a statement that it "has continued to significantly improve its safety and health program especially over the past year. Specifically, it has continued to revise its safety policies and procedures and to address OSHA concerns, has trained and retrained all of its employees and managers including the OSHA 10-hour safety training course, has provided additional personal protective equipment to all its employees and is providing weekly safety talks to all employees."

Maybe if Phenix Lumber had "continued to significantly improve its safety and health program" beginning after the initial OSHA violations in 2007, one or more of the tragedies at its plant would have been averted.

The bottom line is that while OSHA has a relatively small inspection crew, and many wood shops never see hide nor hair of an OSHA inspector, an OSHA inspection is just an accident or whistle from a disgruntled current or ex-employee away. And once a company is on OSHA's radar it remains there for years to come. Just ask the managers at Northeastern Wisconsin Wood Products and Phenix Lumber.

As the old saying goes, "Safety is no accident." Be sure to do regular audits of your operation to be OSHA safe, including meeting all of the record and reporting requirements. It's a huge task, but one that when done should help you sleep better.

Read more of Rich Christianson's blogs.

Guest Blogs Welcome
Got a viewpoint you would like to share with our online woodworking community? Woodworking Network welcomes guest blogs from wood products professionals. Submit your opinions to Rich Christianson, Editor at Large, at rchristianson@vancepublishing.com

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.